L’esprit de l’escalator

Scott Gardner


As a fervid student of Japan (more frozen crab vending machines per capita than any country on earth!), I have long sought to understand the conduct and habitat of the Japanese commuter. One example of this is the Kanto/Kansai escalator phenomenon. You may have heard about regional differences in escalator usage: Which side is for standing, and which side is for allowing self-important corporate poseurs to bound up the steps three at a time?

I still don’t know exactly why Tokyoites and Osakans (and their respective ilk) choose to stand on opposing sides of the escalator. But people have tried to convince me that it’s based on old Bushido chivalric codes from the time of the samurai. Something to do with sword placement, apparently. But did swordsmanship rules need to be so punctilious? How many Edo-era peasant uprisings broke out on the way up to the shinkansen platform?

Escalators may be convenient for travelers—military nobles and the rest of us—but they are not perfect. One of their most frustrating defects is steps and handrails that move at different speeds. They may in fact be designed this way intentionally. I suppose watching the security videos of unwitting, backward-tilting ascenders gives bored, deranged night watchmen something to pass the time. If it happens to you, your instinct of course, after the initial vertigo attack, is to just grab the rail higher up. But on a crowded escalator you must first wait until the person in front of you has done the same thing. Otherwise you’ll put your hand right on top of hers, which threatens to escalate the situation (...sorry). 

Handrail harassment sort of begs the question of whether you should be touching one in the first place. Imagine a harried commuter fiddling with his cellphone and luggage as he sprints through the station. Where does he put his train tickets for temporary safekeeping? In his mouth. And as soon as he can, he removes them from his mouth, rolls them around in his hand, and inserts them in his pocket. Then where does his hand go next? You guessed it. The escalator handrail. Repeat this 200 times every five minutes or so in a busy train station. And now I’m supposed to touch the handrail too?

I still remember a lesson learned from a lovable family of jokesters at the airport who were apparently picking up grandma from her annual wintering in Palm Springs. They were descending the escalator, and had the whole thing to themselves, so the two kids naturally began “playing” on it, but not how you’d expect. First the girl, making sure that her parents were watching, raised the palm of her hand to her face, pretended to wipe her nose with it, then placed it squarely on the handrail. Meanwhile the brother, who was already at the bottom waiting, leaned over the looping end of the same handrail as if to put his tongue on it. The parents of course vocally disapproved, but in an appreciative way, like “We understand that your gross public cleanliness violations are just an attention-seeking ruse. We applaud your creativity.” It was such a cute display of disgusting behavior that I felt like asking them if they had room in the car for one more besides grandma. I could have shown them my famous “inverted blowfish” on their windshield.

So where do I stand on this issue, besides right in the way at the bottom of the steps? I guess I could boycott escalators altogether if I don’t like them. But then I’d have to take the elevator, right? Standing in a cable-suspended box with a handful of strangers, facing the door like everyone else, staring at the back of someone’s head, wondering what to do with my hands. It rises dozens of meters over an empty concrete shaft, stops, and inevitably it’s the person furthest back who wants to get off. Next time you step into an elevator, think about just how bizarre that whole ritual is. Then try doing it with your katana strapped on.